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Did Adam Smith Get “The Wealth of Nations” from the Bible?

I am teaching through Isaiah in my adult Sunday school class. History nerd that I am, I perked up in chapters 60 and 61 when the English Standard Version (and other modern translations) repeatedly uses the phrase “the wealth of the nations.” I immediately guessed that this phrase was the origin of Adam Smith’s classic 1776 economic text of the same name. But I was probably wrong, as Jordan Ballor explains in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought:

“The Hebrew phrase standing behind the English phrase “the wealth of nations” appears in Isaiah 60:5, 60:11, and 61:6. The Hebrew phrase is chayil goyim. Chayil can be understood as referring to “strength,” “ability,” “wealth,” and “army” or military “force.” Goyim is the Hebrew word for “nation” or “people,” most often in reference to non-Hebrew people groups…

The earliest English bibles and translations of the Old Testament illustrate a diversity of ways of understanding the underlying words in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. John Wycliffe’s fourteenth-century translation of the Bible into Middle English renders the text as “the wealth of the heathen.” There are a number of translations of the Old Testament into English in the sixteenth century, and these render the phrase either as “the strength of the Gentiles” (Coverdale Bible [1535]; Matthew’s Bible [1537]; Great Bible [1539]; Taverner’s Bible [1539]; Douay-Rheims [1582/1610]), or “the riches of the Gentiles” (Geneva Bible [1560]; Bishops’ Bible [1568]).

The most famous and influential translation of the Bible into English was made under the auspices of King James in 1611, the so-called King James or Authorized Version (KJV), which is still the dominant version among contemporary English-language Bible readers (at least in the United States). The version of the Bible that Smith himself owned, the 1722 edition of the KJV Bible published in Edinburgh by James Watson, would have been the natural source for any intended biblical allusion.

The KJV renders the relevant text in Isaiah 60:5 and 60:11 with the phrase “the forces of the Gentiles.” Isaiah 61:6 is translated as “the riches of the Gentiles” in the KJV, and the phrase “the wealth of all the heathen round” appears at Zechariah 14:14…

More proximate to Smith’s own time, the major Roman Catholic English-language Bible, the Douay-Rheims translation, was put out in a new edition in 1752. This eighteenth-century edition retains the language of the earlier versions, translating Isaiah 60:5 as “the strength of the Gentiles.” The only other published English-language version of the Bible that I have been able to identify before 1776 is the Quaker Bible of 1764, which renders the text into English as “The Forces of the Nations.”

The earliest version of the text of the book of Isaiah in English that I have found that uses “the wealth of nations” or a close variant is a 1778 publication by Robert Lowth (1710–1787). At the time, Lowth was the bishop of London and a famed expert on biblical poetry. Lowth translates Isaiah 60:5 in this way: “Then shalt thou fear, and overflow with joy; / And thy heart shall be ruffled, and dilated; / When the riches of the sea shall be poured in upon thee; / When the wealth of the nations shall come into thee” (p. 157).

In 1808, the American Charles Thomson undertook a new translation from the Septuagint, which, as we have seen, represents a different text tradition at this point from the major Hebrew texts. Thomson (1808) thus renders the conclusion of Isaiah 60:5 as referring to “the riches of the sea and of nations and peoples.” Other nineteenth-century versions include Webster’s Revision (1833), which reads “the forces of the Gentiles,” and Young’s Literal Translation (1862), which renders the text as “the forces of the nations.” It is only toward the conclusion of the nineteenth century that “the wealth of nations” and close variants come into widespread use in English Bible translations. The Revised Version of 1885 translates Isaiah 60:5 as “the wealth of the nations,” as does the Darby Bible (1890) and the American Standard Version (1901).

Although there is some diversity among English translations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, “the wealth of nations” has by this time become a standard translation choice. Thus, the New American Bible (1970), the New American Standard Bible (1971), the New Revised Standard Version (1989), the Contemporary English Version (1995), the English Standard Version (2001), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), and the Lexham English Bible (2010) all use “the wealth of nations” or “the wealth of the nations.” The New King James Version (1982) uses “the wealth of the Gentiles,” while the New International Version (1984) renders the text as “the riches of the nations.”

This survey of the history of translation of the Hebrew chayil goyim into English illustrates the diversity of translation choices across the centuries. Nevertheless, a couple of patterns can be found. First, prior to 1776, no major Bible translation uses “the wealth of nations” to translate Isaiah 60:5. Second, this phrase and close variants begin to appear in biblical translations toward the end of the nineteenth century, and become more popular through the twentieth century to the present day…

The lack of any English Bible translation before the time of Adam Smith that uses the phrase “wealth of nations” to translate the relevant source words in Isaiah 60:5 and similar passages renders practically impossible the claim that, as [one author] puts it, “[i]n a biblically literate culture, many would have known the allusion in the title to Smith’s revolutionary 1776 publication.”

For Ballor’s complete argument and sources, see the original article.

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